Acceleration: A Coat of Many Colours
Wilma Vialle, Tracey Ashton, Greg Carlon and Florence Rankin
Why does the word 'acceleration' continue to generate controversy? The research literature now makes it abundantly clear that acceleration in its various guises is a positive intervention for many gifted students. Nevertheless, educational practitioners in Australia continue to resist the evidence and campaign actively against allowing students to take up this option. This paper synthesises three research projects conducted in New South Wales , exploring different forms of acceleration. The first project involved an investigation of the Early Entry policy for gifted children in one region of the state; the second reports on a number of case studies of students who have received at least one instance of grade-skipping; and the third, examines a vertical programming system that allows students to accelerate within subjects at a selective high school. Based on these research studies, this paper will explore the issues that are at the centre of the acceleration debate.
There are few words that more readily bring forth debate in educational circles than the word 'acceleration'. Much of the controversy surrounding the concept, however, can be linked to urban myths that have little or no support in educational research. Acceleration can take several forms but the urban myth attaches the word's meaning to one form only 'radical acceleration or multiple grade-skipping' and popularised caricatures such as the television character, Doogie Howser, become the focus for much of the scepticism of the value of acceleration as a viable educational option for gifted students. The prevalent attitude is still one of "early ripe, early rot."
the widespread misgivings of educational practitioners, the research literature
on acceleration (Benbow, 1992; Gross, 1992; Kulik & Kulik, 1991, 1992; Swiatek,
1993), continually demonstrates positive academic attainments for accelerants.
As Benbow (1992) has stated, acceleration is "a program option that is best
supported by research findings conducted over a span of 60 years [but] it is
still infrequently used and often met with scepticism" (p. 3). Studies conducted
in the United States and Australia repeatedly reflect this pattern of support
in research but resistance in practice. A recent study in Germany found a similar
pattern of negativity towards acceleration practices in that country (Heinbokel,
New South Wales (NSW), provision for acceleration at every stage of schooling
has been a matter of government policy since 1991 (see NSW Department of School
Education, 1991). A comparatively recent survey reported by Bailey (1997), indicated
the growing number of cases of acceleration in NSW through early entry, subject
acceleration and grade skipping since the release of the policy statement. Nevertheless,
the urban myth that mitigates against acceleration in any form as a program
option for gifted students still holds sway in many areas of New South Wales.
The issue of acceleration continues to elicit among educators the primacy of
concerns related to the social and emotional adjustment of students over their
academic needs, as described nearly two decades ago by Daurio (1979). This apparent
dichotomy in the minds of educational practitioners not only neglects the research
evidence cited earlier but also overlooks the reality that a student's social
and emotional well-being is inextricably related toónot separate fromótheir
cognitive needs. To separate the social and emotional from the cognitive needs
of a student is to ignore current understandings regarding the nature of thinking
paper describes three studies on acceleration conducted in the South Coast region
of NSW, a particularly conservative area of Australia and one in which egalitarian
concerns are markedly rampant. The first project involved an investigation of
the NSW Early Entry policy for gifted children; the second reports on a number
of case studies of students who have received at least one instance of grade-skipping;
and the third examines a vertical programming system that allows students to
accelerate within subjects at an academically selective high school.
Entry is the term given to the procedure that allows children aged four years
to enter kindergarten rather than at age five which is the norm. The procedure
was given government policy approval in 1991 (NSW Department of School Education,
1991). Despite the policy support, teachers and administrators have generally
opposed the policy in practice, primarily because of their beliefs that the
children were not adequately screened and were too immature to function well
(Braggett, 1984). The negative attitudes towards early entry, as indicated earlier,
have been largely based on misconceptions and anecdotal evidence rather than
empirical data (Butterworth & Constable, 1982). Mares and Byles (1994) indicated
that early entry is successful if the school selection procedure is thorough,
and the teacher is aware of the needs of gifted children and has a positive
attitude to the child's placement.
there is no research evidence to support the argument that if gifted children
enter school before five, they will suffer serious disadvantage later in their
schooling (Butterworth & Constable, 1982), a disproportionately small number
of children have been enrolled early in NSW's South Coast regional schools compared
to other regions in the state. In order to determine the reasons for the lack
of implementation of the policy, a survey was conducted to investigate principals'
attitudes towards early entry of gifted four year olds into schools; the questionnaire
sought details concerning the screening procedures used, the influence of parents
and preschools on selection, program provisions for gifted children, the principal's
attitudes to early entry, and impediments to the procedure in the schools. The
sample size included a total population of 63 school principals. Twenty seven
questionnaires were returned, representing a response rate of 42.85%.
far more schools indicated that they offered early entry (25) than not (2),
only 10 schools reported that they had received applications for the
procedure. Only three of these ten schools had enrolled children --one of which
enrolled five children -- while the remaining seven schools had rejected the
applications. Of the 15 children who had been screened for early entry, seven
were admitted and eight were rejected. It was interesting to note that five
out of the seven children enrolled were of non-English-speaking background (NESB)
which is in contrast to the evidence that NESB children are much less likely
to be nominated as gifted by their teachers (O'Tuel, 1994; Vialle, 1994; Zappia,
1989). However, four of these five children were accepted at one school where
the Assistant Principal was completing a doctorate in gifted education. This
highlights the impact that training in gifted education can wield on the acceptance
of special provisions for gifted students.
number of reasons was cited for non-enrolment of early entry candidates with
an indication that both parents and principals were responsible for making the
final decisions. Overwhelmingly, though, the findings of the survey indicated
high rejection rates by principals which replicates Whan's (1993) finding of
a 98% rejection rate by principals in a metropolitan area of NSW. The most common
reason that children were rejected for early entry related to the social and
emotional development of the child as encapsulated in this comment from one
The socialisation process and the ability to get along with one's peers is far more valuable to a child's progress than any academically gifted program at this stage of their development.
surveyed principals also commented that parents wanted their children to "fit
in", to progress at normal rates and to avoid the problems of "early exit".
A large number of principals stated that the immaturity of the child and their
physical size were reasons for non-enrolment. Given other research findings
in the field, it was not surprising that lack of academic ability was the least
important reason cited for rejection of early entry candidates. Another factor
in the low early entry figures for the region was the principals' general lack
of familiarity with the policy. Some, however, expressed their particular opposition
to the policy:
I must say that I am personally opposed to the concept of early entry. In fact, my experience has been such that I would welcome the opposite approach, i.e. later entry.
survey concluded that the major factor in preventing young gifted children from
entering school early, related to unsubstantiated fears by the region's principals
for the social and emotional well-being of the children concerned. It is clear
that a great deal of specialist training in the needs of gifted children will
need to occur before policies such as the Early Entry policy can be implemented
and provide an important avenue for the gifted children it is designed to serve.
purpose of the second study was to determine the academic and social-emotional
effects of acceleration on students who had experienced at least one grade-skip.
Intensive case-studies of five accelerants were developed in order to explore
their perceptions of the experience of such acceleration. An attempt was made
to maximise the differences among the five case-studies so that any features
common to the students would be more striking. Therefore, the students ranged
in age from six to sixteen years at the time of the study; there were three
males and two females in the sample; the students came from different socio-economic
backgrounds and one was from a non-English-speaking background. Data were gathered
through multiple interviews with the students, their families and their teachers
and through school reports and test results.
order to place the conclusions of this study into perspective, the five case-studies
need to be briefly reviewed. Pseudonyms selected by the students themselves
are used to protect their confidentiality.
was 11 years of age and in Year 7 at the local academically selective high school
at the time of the study. Of non-English-speaking background, Fatih's giftedness
was recognised by his Year 4 teacher who acted as his advocate in having him
accelerated from Year 4 to Year 6.
was also 11 and was attending the local academically selective high school in
Year 7 at the time of the study. Creichton's abilities were first noticed by
his Year 1 teacher but it was his parents who advocated strongly in order to
effect an acceleration from Year 1 to Year 3.
was 16 years of age and in his second year at university. His parents recognised
his giftedness and were his advocates but they were forced to repeatedly battle
an intransigent bureaucracy in order to have Elijah's educational needs met.
After persistent attempts, this resulted in multiple grade-skips at primary
school and then the frustration of his being forced to spend three years in
Year 6 because the high school would not accept him before he reached the age
of eleven. He accelerated again in high school, completing his Higher School
Certificate while simultaneously attending university classes.
was 6 years of age and attending Year 1 in a local primary school. Her pre-school
teacher recognised her giftedness and recommended that her parents withdraw
her from the preschool and apply for early entry into kindergarten. After half
a year in kindergarten, she progressed to Year 1. The school recommended that
she be further accelerated into Year 3 but the parents have refused that option.
was 9 years of age and was being home-schooled by her mother at the time of
the study. She was identified as gifted when she was in Year 2 and was eventually
grade-skipped from Year 3 into Year 5. Her mother decided to home-school Kate
because of ongoing problems with socialising at school. Kate was then diagnosed
with an obsessive compulsive disorder and is receiving psychiatric care for
five case-studies reveal some interesting commonalities. Elijah, Creichton and
Kate were all identified as gifted because they expressed their boredom and
frustration with school-work they found unchallenging. Their feelings were manifested
in physical and emotional symptoms. In fact, all five cases reported suffering
physical illnesses prior to their accelerationóand in each case, the symptoms
disappeared when they were provided with more challenging work. Elijah, Creichton
and Kate have all had their giftedness confirmed through formal testing as their
acceleration depended ultimately on the scores they attained in the face of
opposition from the schools. Neither Fatih nor Kaylie have undergone such testing
because in their cases -- unlike the other three -- the teachers were their
advocates for accelerated progression rather than their parents. In the cases
of Elijah, Creichton and Kate, the parents acquired and demonstrated far more
knowledge about the appropriate educational options for gifted students than
the school decision-makers.
all five cases, the academic needs of the students were not being met prior
to acceleration. Following the acceleration, there was some improvement in the
level of work offered to them. Nevertheless, there were still several instances
when the work again became unchallenging. It is clear that some of these students
were candidates for further acceleration. What is also abundantly clear from
the case-studies, is that acceleration is a temporary solution to addressing
the needs of gifted students; without a differentiated curriculum which challenges
the student and a teacher who is knowledgeable about the needs of gifted students,
acceleration will not satisfy the gifted student. In such cases, the acceleration
becomes a placement decision rather than a program decision. Unfortunately,
boredom and frustration are the dominant memories of these accelerants when
reflecting on their schooling experiences thus far.
of the case-studies reported that they were far happier, socially and emotionally,
after their acceleration. They had all demonstrated a tendency to socilaise
with older children prior to their acceleration. They also reported a greater
feeling of fulfilment and self-confidence as a result of their acceleration.
Kate was an exception in that she felt rejected by the class into which she
was accelerated but her emotional problems were not any worse after acceleration
than they had been beforehand.
summary, the five case-studies of accelerants support the findings of other
research studies in the literature. The experience of acceleration through grade-skipping
was seen as a positive one by each of the students, both academically and socially
and emotionally. The study also highlights the urgent need for teachers and
administrators to familiarise themselves with the needs of gifted students.
The parents and teachers who were advocates for these students had to combat
prejudice and bureaucracy in order to gain the concession of even a single grade-skip.
The students continued to experience some academic frustrations when the curricula
they received still failed to meet their unique needs.
way in which some high schools are attempting to provide flexibility for gifted
students is through a procedure known as vertical timetabling. This procedure
allows accelerated progression in specific subject areas for those students
whose abilities warrant acceleration. The academically selective high school
in the South Coast region of NSW introduced vertical timetabling four years
ago. In the second year of its operation (end of 1995), a survey was conducted
to evaluate the effectiveness of the procedure for these accelerants. At the
time of the study, accelerated progression had been undertaken by 50 students
in Years 8, 9 and 10; in each case, the students were studying at one year level
higher in the subject discipline. Some students were accelerated in one subject
only while others were accelerated in a number of subjects. The survey was completed
by 33 students, representing 16 accelerants in Mathematics, 30 in Science, 13
in English, and 1 in Geography and History.
most significant finding of this survey was that all accelerants, within six
to ten weeks of being in the accelerated class, found themselves at the top
of the class into which they were accelerated. Consequently, after the "honeymoon
period" of the initial introduction to the class, they became dissatisfied with
the pace at which the class was moving. There seem to be two explanations for
this finding. One relates to the placement of the accelerants; they were frequently
placed in a class that contained the less capable students from the year group;
therefore, a recommendation from this survey was that accelerants should be
placed with the more talented students in the year group so that the pace of
work was more appropriate.
second -- and more intractable -- problem relates to the teaching strategies
being used in the classes. The students reported that the teachers often used
a teacher-centered approach rather than a problem-based, student-centered approach
that they would have preferred. For example, 91% of the students indicated that
they preferred to set their own problems to solve while only 33% reported that
they were ever given this option. Similarly, 81% of the students indicated that
they would like the opportunity to sit pretests to establish what they already
know on a topic; and 97% indicated they would like the opportunity to skip content
they had already mastered. Again, the frequency with which this occurred was
in stark contrast to their stated preference with only 25% of students indicating
that such opportunities were afforded them.
students were asked to comment on the ways in which their accelerated class
differed from their regular classes. When asked to make this comparison, the
majority of the students were generally positive, commenting particularly that
the work in the accelerated class was covered more quickly and was more challenging.
Further, many students indicated that they were able to work more independently
and at their own pace "without the teacher interrupting". The theme of many
responses is encapsulated in one student's comment: "I don't stare out the window
so much." Nevertheless, a small number of students indicated that the work was
not any different from that in their regular classes.
small number of students commented on the high expectations placed on them by
being in the accelerated class. They felt that there was pressure on them to
perform better than others and therefore there was"less feeling of security
than in other classes". One of the conditions of being accelerated is that the
students maintain an "A average" in the subject. Such expectations can be regarded
as positive or negative depending on the personality and self-esteem of the
individual students concerned. Many of the students accepted the challenge and
worked hard while a small percentage decided to return to their cohort groups.
force that mitigates against students pursuing the challenge of accelerating
in particular subjects is a ruling by the Board of Studies (the body which sets
and administers the rules and regulations governing the assessment of high school
students) which removes the flexibility that vertical timetabling is trying
to effect. The Board requires any accelerating student to sit the Higher School
Certificate at the highest possible level. For example, an accelerant in Year
12 is required to attempt 4 Unit Science, 3 Unit English, 4 Unit Mathematics
and any other subject at 3 Unit level. This provides the accelerant with very
few options for other subjects they may wish to pursue. A number of students
commented on the kind of constraints this ruling placed on their studies.
summary, the Vertical Timetabling approach at this selective high school has
enabled accelerated progresssion within some subjects for gifted students. The
majority of students were positive about the opportunity that they were receiving.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the success of the acceleration was dependent
on the ways in which the teachers designed the curriculum for the students.
The data from this survey indicate that teachers still need a lot more in-servicing
in strategies appropriate for gifted students before the procedure fully meets
the needs of those students.
three research projects briefly described above examined three different forms
of acceleration: early entry; grade-skipping; and acceleration within subject
disciplines. A number of conclusions can be drawn from these studies. The attitudes
of the accelerants towards their acceleration were overwhelmingly positive both
in terms of their academic needs and their social and emotional needs. Nevertheless,
the studies also revealed a reluctance -- and in some cases, antagonism -- regarding
acceleration as an educational program option on the part of teachers and administrators.
The educators who supported acceleration were those individuals who had received
some training in gifted education; those who were most vocal in their opposition
admitted to receiving no such training. The fears most often expressed by the
latter group of educators related to the social and emotional development of
the accelerated students. Such fears were not borne out by the evidence gained
from these studies.
success of acceleration related most strongly to the nature of the curriculum
that the accelerants received subsequent to their acceleration. This supports
Kulik & Kulik's (1992) conclusion that the key to acceleration is the way
in which course content is adjusted to the student's ability. The students in
the studies described herein reported high levels of satisfaction, academically
and emotionally, when the curriculum was challenging, provided them with options
and allowed them a voice in its design and execution. The experiences of many
students, however, was that the curriculum often was not differentiated and
therefore the acceleration became an administrative option rather than a pedagogically-sound
program option. The data from the three research projects echo the conclusions
of Gross (1993) in her ongoing longitudinal research into exceptionally gifted
children. Gross (1992) indicated that factors influencing the success of acceleration
programs could be summarised under the following: program design and planning;
enhancement of social self-esteem; provision of an intellectual peer group;
and, the reversal of underachievement.
factor that emerges from the data is the importance of supportive adults and
peers for the emotional well-being of the accelerants. The students commented
on the importance of a belief in themselves to their sense of achievement and
their happiness at school; they also highlighted the part that some teachers,
parents and peers played in helping them accept their own abilities. Parents
and teachers acted as advocates in seeking appropriate educational options for
them; like-minded peers made them feel less isolated in their academic pursuits.
Noble, Robinson & Gunderson (1993) also conclude that adult and peer support
is essential for accelerants.
the study data reveal how important it is that individual differences are considered
in the planning and implementation of acceleration practices. Accelerated students
need to have their progress monitored and additional curriculum modifications
made where necessary. It is clear that some of the accelerants in the second
study, for example, would have benefited from further accelerations while one
accelerant had particular social needs that were not addressed. The importance
of attending to individual differences has also been evident in previous research
studies (Charlton, Marolf & Stanley, 1994; Cornell, Callahan & Loyd,
in all it guises, is a viable educational option for gifted students that is
currently under-utilised because of the unfounded fears of many educators. The
research studies described in this paper are in accord with the extensive research
literature indicating that the procedure enhances the academic and the social-emotional
needs of gifted students. Lack of training in gifted education among many teachers
and administrators, however, continues to prevent gifted students from enjoying
the option of accelerated progression.
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